Conversion and Controversy

Why a particular subject captures the interest of the public at a given time is not always immediately apparent. Conversion, for instance, has become the topic of conferences, lectures and exhibits in German-speaking Europe without any notable change in its social significance nor religious practice.

Picture iMarilyn Monroe on the cover of the Modern Screen Magazine

Picture in the current special exhibition “The Whole Truth” accompanying the question: Jew or non-Jew? Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the Modern Screen Magazine, November 1956
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

The number of converts to Judaism is invariably small. According to the data collected by the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland, on average 64 conversions are carried out yearly in the various German-Jewish communities, and since the year 2000, the number has remained fairly stable. Nor has the size of the Jewish communities varied much. For over a decade, the number of members has stabilized at around 105.000. In relation to the size of the community, the total number of converts since 1990, 1.366, makes up under one percent of the Jewish community. The number of Jews leaving the communities is slightly higher, around one hundred a year, yet the number is not particularly meaningful, because it includes people who leave for all sorts of reasons, including financial. By all accounts, today’s Jewish converts are a minute and exotic minority.

Yet the topic is currently being discussed with much enthusiasm.  continue reading

Question of the Month:

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

Our special exhibition “The Whole Truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews” is based on 30 questions posed to the Jewish Museum Berlin or its staff over the past few years. In the exhibition, visitors have their own opportunity to ask questions or to leave comments on post-it notes. Some of these questions will be answered here in our blog, such as last month’s query: “how does a kippah stay on?” This month, we respond to Boris, who wants to know “why some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

A post-it note with the question of the month (in German) and a drawing of a man moving back and forth

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray? Boris”
© photo: Thomas Valentin Harb, Jewish Museum Berlin

Dear Boris,
Many people have asked why religious Jews sway back and forth while praying. This very old custom is called shuckling in Yiddish and means to rock, shake, or swing. As with many customs, it is easier to describe when and where it was practiced, than to answer definitively, why people shuckle while praying and studying the Torah.  continue reading

From Wagner to the Weather

My Two Hours as a Living Exhibition Object in the Show “The Whole Truth

This was a truly extraordinary experience. The best moments were when the visitors started talking not just to me but to each other, and we wound up talking about Wagner and the weather rather than ‘just’ about growing up Jewish – or, more specifically, in my case as the daughter of a Jewish-American mother and a German, (formerly) Protestant father – in Germany and how odd it was to be sitting in a glass showcase in an exhibition.

A woman sitting on a bench in a vitreous showcase open at the front

Signe Rossbach in the exhibition “The Whole Truth”, April 8, 2013
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Michal Friedlander

I was reminded of the moment in 1998 when I returned to Germany from the U.S. (although I did not want to see it that way at the time). The German publisher I was working for in New York had just been appointed State Minister of Culture by Gerhard Schröder, and I continued working for him in the Federal Chancellery, first in Bonn, then in Berlin. Back in New York, an editor at Henry Holt said to me: “Well, well, isn’t that a great job for a good little Jewish girl, working in the German government?” I thought about it, and said: “Exactly.”

So, I guess this was what brought me to sit in a glass showcase in a show at the Jewish Museum Berlin, where I have been working for twelve years now, on a seemingly quiet Monday afternoon. In my two hours of being a living exhibition object, I …  continue reading